While many technology companies these days have developer advocates, it may not be immediately clear to the rest of us exactly what it is they do. Advocating for developers at a tech company should be easy, right? Well, there's more to it then what the title suggests, and I'm extremely glad this week to talk with Brian Douglas to learn more. As a developer advocate at GitHub, he balances his time between coding and engaging with users on the platform.
Brian talked about what attracted him to GitHub, and gave his process on talking to developers and approaching new projects. From there, Brian shared his story from Florida to Silicon Valley, including how a detour into finance eventually led him into becoming a software developer. We even talked about podcasting! I think you'll learn a lot from this conversation with Brian, and hopefully his journey inspires you to put yourself out there!
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Maurice Cherry: All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.
Brian Douglas:: So my name is Brian Douglas. I'm a developer advocate at GitHub. And a lot of people want to know what a developer advocate is, and my joke is I'm a developer that sends emails. But what I'm really focused on at GitHub is user adoption and growth for specific features, community engagement. So, sometimes I get really deep in the code, like 50% of my time is writing code and the other 50% of the time is actually engaged in the community based on the code I wrote.
Maurice Cherry: Interesting. I mean, I was curious as to why a company like GitHub would need a developer advocate considering a lot of developers are kind of already using GitHub. But it sounds like that engagement part is really the key thing with what you do.
Brian Douglas:: It is. I joined GitHub about 18, 19 months ago in 2018. And so I've been here it feels like forever because I've seen so many different things change including like the acquisition of Microsoft. And they had never had a proper developer advocate. So we've had like people who branded the title on LinkedIn. But as far as like developer relations team, we haven't had one until I joined. And it was really for focusing specifically on strategic features and adoption [inaudible 00:01:09], because like a lot of company, a lot of small companies including GitHub, like the employees become advocates.
Brian Douglas:: So, I imagine for a lot of the companies that we love and we hear from, some of the faces of those companies, they are regular engineers, regular designers or regular PMs and just happened to love the product I'm talking about. And that's what GitHub had a lot of. There's a lot of engineers that love talking about our product.
Brian Douglas:: So I came in to specifically focus on strategic things, stuff that maybe people weren't giving enough love to. So, within my first year at GitHub, my focus was the GitHub API and interactions with that. And like GitHub's been around for 11 years and the API has been around for 11 years. But the adoption between the API and github.com is like completely different, and different as in like not a lot of people are building on the API, but a ton of people using github.com. So my focus last year was really engaging the community and teaching them best practice of how to use the API, why you would use the API, how to build integrations on our marketplace to eventually get, like if you want to build like a company and make money off of that, like sort of get people engaged in that sort of way.
Maurice Cherry: What attracted you to GitHub?
Brian Douglas:: Well, that's simple. The paycheck is really what attracted me to GitHub. But to be honest-
Maurice Cherry: Keep it real, yeah.
Brian Douglas:: Yeah, yeah. So I've been using GitHub as long as I've been writing code. So 2013 is when I first created my GitHub account and started deciding I wanted to learn how to code. And so I've had an account since then, but my journey into programming is a long winding journey it's out there on the internet on the second episode of Code Newbies, if anybody's familiar with that podcast.
Maurice Cherry: Oh yeah, we've had Saron on the show too.
Brian Douglas:: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So getting to GitHub was at the point where I was working at a startup in San Francisco and early employee at the startup and I really loved my job and that's where I sort of learned how to be a developer advocate at that job. And I spoke at GitHub Universe, which is the premier GitHub conference. Actually the month that they reached out to me. So I spoke at GitHub Universe. One of the senior directors at GitHub I actually knew through another podcast I do, and he reached out and said, hey, you know, what are you're doing, I see you're doing a lot of talks, talking about, specifically GraphQL is what I was talking about.
Brian Douglas:: So they started the interview process basically just after that. Had like a nice little chat at GitHub's office and went through the process to originally interview as an engineer because I did a lot of writing code at my last job and transitioned to a developer advocate at my last job and what sort of jonesing to get back into writing code full time, 100%. But then GitHub sort of gave me like a switcheroo and said hey, we know you've been interviewing for this engineering role but we're also trying to build a developer relations team, would you like to be the first person on that team?
Brian Douglas:: So that's what got me here. I joked about the paycheck, like I'm a developer by trade and I get paid as a developer, a senior developer at GitHub but my focus is not 100% writing code, it's focusing on how to craft that story and get people engaged in certain features.
Maurice Cherry: What has been kind of your biggest challenge though with this role? Because it sounds like you said, you kind of started the team in a way. But what's been your biggest challenge?
Brian Douglas:: Yeah, yeah. I want to say I started, like my second coworker who joined a month after me, we joined literally within a month of each other. He's based in Europe. So we both like initially like kicked off this team at GitHub. But honestly like the challenge, so like personally the challenge is always trying to convince people that you know what you're talking about.
Brian Douglas:: Credibility is like a big thing as a developer advocate because you could easily recite like back into just sending emails, showing up at conferences, giving your sort of your best talk over and over again. And then sort of this coasting, because developer advocacy and developer relations, though it's been around for a long time, a lot of people don't really get it and a lot of people don't understand like how to get value out of it. So like some advocates could go from one company to the other company writing the same blog post over and over again and basically kill it because if you know how to talk to developers and you know how to reach them in the space that they're at, you could do it any company and do well.
Brian Douglas:: So my personal challenge is always in trying to always make sure I stay grounded, make sure I stay up to speed on whatever the latest and greatest technology is and also keep my developer skillset up. But yeah, but working wise, always trying to keep ahead of what we're shipping. So, we happen to be shipping a feature really soon, we're shipping a refresh to one of our features. And we got a lot of information and feedback from our beta, like the cycle. But from that feedback, we ended up adjusting how we interact with the feature and basically improving that story through this beta program. And my last week has been trying to figure out how to leverage this project and then also build a story to share about this.
Brian Douglas:: So I had to keep tabs on all the engineering teams that are associated with my day job and make sure that I know exactly what they're talking about, make sure that they, if they're writing, if documentations get written or if their API or interactions are getting written, like make sure that anybody who claims to be a developer, can you leverage this, because like some of the worst thing you can do as a developer focused company is assume that people know what you're talking about. So I try to sort of break those barriers in between developers know how to write code but they don't know how to use your feature, it's probably something wrong with your feature. So, we try to provide feedback on that sense.
Maurice Cherry: I remember when I started at Glitch, actually was Fog Creek software back then I started, and in my first week, they had me at a developer conference and it was really different from design conferences that I went to because design conferences, everyone is very, I guess open and talkative. The talks tend to be really super creative. There's always all these great questions. And then I'm in this developer conference, it was a one day conference, it was a DevRelCon in London, my first time in London. So it's like first week on the job, first job in a different country at a completely different type of event that I've never been to before. It was a lot.
Maurice Cherry: But I remember everyone would give their talks and then that was it. They would talk and they would walk off stage. No time for questions, anything. They just, all right, that's my talk, boom, next talk right after that. And I remember tried to just talk to people and just learn what it is that is important to developers because I know what's important to designers. I don't know how much that really differs. There's something that you said about being able to talk to developers, like how to talk to developers. What exactly does that entail?
Brian Douglas:: Yeah, that's a good question. I'm actually planning on being at DevRolCon London and I just spoke at DevRolCon SF. And like communicated developer is, sometimes it can be challenging and sometimes it doesn't really have to be as challenging. So, you talk about like developers getting on stage and then giving a talk and then walking off. I personally, I prefer not to have answer questions from stage at developer conferences specifically for the reason, and I'm not sure if this, if DevRolCon has the same sort of stance. Well, actually they do because I was on the organizing committee and actually for the DevRolCon SF.
Brian Douglas:: And sometimes you can get some people who ask questions who are not really trying to ask a question, they're just trying to flex. So like they're asking a question about like, hey, have you heard about this thing? Oh, you haven't. Well, let me take two minutes and then tell you exactly why your talk was invalid. Like that sort of thing.
Brian Douglas:: And like I come, so my background is, I did sales right outside of college. I got a finance degree during the worst time, during the market crash in 08, 07 and then took a sales job because that was the best way I could make money and sort of move out of my mom's house. And during the time I learned how to code. So like I had four years of like sales and sales admin experience, and also had like this experience of like communicating and networking. And then, so I took an engineering job and like my path into engineering was writing a blog post. I was like two to three blog posts like a week, basically on how I was learning, the stuff I was learning at the time. So I was, had no CS background, no engineering background, but I was learning from this free materials on the internet.
Brian Douglas:: So my communication skills, like written wise, I learned as I was learning. And then my communication skills, like on stage, I learned because I had a goal of doing way more public speaking because I found that a lot of the talks that I went to, like the majority of them, you could just read the blog post that they wrote associated with the talk and you'd get all that information. So then you sit there and you're just like waiting for like the punchline or waiting for like the link to go and do this on your own. So the majority of like developers at developer conferences have their laptops open and they're working the entire time.
Brian Douglas:: Like one of my goals, when I get up on stage is, like number one, if I can get everybody to close their laptops within the first five minutes, then I know I've got them. So usually, all my talks tend to start off with some random story or some sort of like, a story I'm going to key into what I'm talking about technically, I usually bring a story.
Brian Douglas:: So I bring this example, and I went to a GraphQL conference a couple of years ago and every single talk on stage had like a reference to Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. I think that's like really leaning into the existing culture, the monoculture that we have in tech that's been around for the longest time, which is like, no knock against anybody who likes Game of Thrones or Harry Potter because I like Game of Thrones just like the next person, but also that's leaning into like the nerdy, the white culture despite that, like, you know, black and brown people do like Game of Thrones.
Brian Douglas:: But what I was getting at is that if you sit at a talk and like the punchline or the reason I'm going to close my laptop is because you mentioned Harry Potter, then maybe try harder because the last person did that. So my approach in that conference, that same conference that I got like super annoyed on watching all these same talks about the same thing with the same examples, my talk was about hip hop. And I do this intentionally because I wanted to bring part of my brand to the talk. So people, one, they'll close their laptops because they're really confused on what I'm talking about and why I'm even mentioning Tupac and Grandmaster Flash within the first like 20 slides. And then two, they're like waiting for me to talk about something that, like the actual subject matter.
Brian Douglas:: So like the first 20 slides is going to be, I won't introduce myself, I also won't introduce my topic. What I'll do is introduce you to some sort of concept and there's like a quote from Stan Lee, which is imagine every issue as someone's first issue. So if you're going mention Harry Potter, like explain to me what context Harry Potter brings for you to bring this up. Like some sort of analogy or something I can take away to remember this. Otherwise, I might as well just go read your blog post. Just like give me the last slide and then I can go to the next talk.
Brian Douglas:: So, going back to the talk that I was explaining, so I explained GraphQL being this interface of how you interact with APIs. A lot of people compare it to REST, and there were a lot of conversations about REST being dead and like REST APIs not being like the best way to do things anymore. I had a counterpoint, which is REST is not dead and rest is actually just being sampled by GraphQL.
Brian Douglas:: So my going back to the hip hop example, I talked about disco and I talked about the Get Down, which is a Netflix show, a show that I was really, really enjoying and they got canceled. So I love giving this talk in Silicon Valley when there's Netflix employees so I can give them, I should say, hey, why did you kill my show? But what I learned from that show is that like, Grandmaster Flash, it was like these four or five kids that started up this hip hop group and they didn't know what it was called. They just knew that it was this new type of music and they were taking disco beats and they were basically sampling them and making hip hop. And that same sort of like abstraction that you do it's the same sort of abstraction that happened like with Tupac.
Brian Douglas:: So like, I talk about Grandmaster Flash and the message, which is like, "My brother's doing bad, stole my mother's TV, says she watches too much, it's just not healthy." A lot of people don't know that verse but people know the hook and the hook is, "Don't push me cause I'm close to the edge." So yeah. So like Tupac took that song and he made ain't nothing but a gangsta's party. So like the underlying beat came from that song. And that song was like the pinnacle point of when hip hop became less about partying and more about rapping about your life. And then that's exactly what gangster rap was and that's what Tupac made a career on top of. Short lived career but his rise came through gangster rap.
Brian Douglas:: And so my analogy is like Tupac got, he got shot in 1996, and 1996 is the same year that REST APIs came. So there was like this, like just from googling and Wikipedia, I found that like the same year, I forgot the guy, but he was at the University of Minnesota, he gave a spec out around REST APIs and then how this is going to be the best way to interface with your database.
Brian Douglas:: I take this analogy 10 years later at GitHub because the time I give this talk, GitHub was my employer, still my employer. They decided to try out GraphQL the next year. So, the next year after Tupac got shot, then you have like Puff Daddy taking that same sort of essence of sampling disco and all the like Shaka Khan and all the stuff that was happening in the 80s, like the next wave of disco and R&B, and he built an entire brand on sampling beats and music again. And like that, it's all cyclical. So GraphQL, you could actually sample your rest API with GraphQL.
Brian Douglas:: I've kind of meandered through this explanation. There's a talk out there when I actually go really deep into hip hop culture and teach all my white tech bros in the audience about hip hop culture and just sort of have them walk away sort of like, oh cool, I feel like I'm super woke because now I know about Tupac and Grandmaster Flash. But I do that intentionally because I could literally sit and talk about GraphQL for 100 slides for 40 minutes and everybody would be okay. And everybody would be like, okay, another talk about GraphQL, let me just pull up my laptop, let me get some work done while I'm listening and looking at blog posts. But instead I try to sell people on the experience because most people go to conferences to be entertained to network.
Brian Douglas:: So, if you could walk away from my talk and want to know who I am, know what company I work for, and also like walk away at some extra information, then I feel like I've sort of won as a developer advocate.
Maurice Cherry: That's a really good tactic. I like that. I'm interested in that part that you said about why people probably don't ask questions from the stage because they're trying to trip you up. Because that's a very common thing in, now that I think about it. It's very common in design conferences where someone will, they don't have a question, they just want to pontificate for a few minutes. And even at events that I've been in, I make sure to say like, if you've got a question, ask a question. If you don't have a question, we're going to shut you down and move on to the next thing. So that kind of makes sense.
Brian Douglas:: It's the worst when they're like, oh, I got two questions.
Maurice Cherry: Right, right. And the first question is some long diatribe statement and then the second question is like super short. And it's like, why don't you ask the second one first?
Brian Douglas:: Yeah. Yeah. I tend to set it to say, hey, if you've got a question, come find me. Like walk up to the stage, I'll be here standing here. And I tend to have a pretty good conversation after the fact. And then, because more than likely like most people like, unless they're, I had someone actually, so I gave a talk and mentioned Kanye West in Chicago. And I had mentioned, made like a mention of like 50 Cent. Like people are like, we're like die hard 50 Cent fans. And like they had like, oh well, 50's actually sold this million albums because I had like some sort of like statistic in my talk.
Brian Douglas:: So like those are the, I'll take that from the stage. Yeah, cool. You can correct me about how many albums 50 sold, but I'm not going to talk about like, you know, well REST APIs, they were invented for this reason and blah, blah, blah. Yeah, that's cool but let's, try to blog post about that and I'll give you like a clap on Medium.
Maurice Cherry: So you mentioned that with your work that you're doing at GitHub, it's like 50% code and 50% kind of engagement around that code. How do you approach new projects at GitHub?
Brian Douglas:: Yeah. Yeah. So like I, we've got a product roadmap and we've got an idea of like where we're going to be in like six months, a year or five years. So, as a developer relations, and I think this is kind of similar to develop relations in multiple companies, like you have a broad statement of like grow users or get more user adoption or signups. And like it's going to be a very broad like OKR or objective key result that you sort out our KPI, whatever you want to call them at your company. So, what I usually just try to do is look at the stuff that's out there that we have and what I did in the last year is try to focus on places where there was like problematic things or maybe there was a lot of user drop-off. So like trying to figure out like why is nobody using the API on GitHub.
Brian Douglas:: And what my experience using GitHub's API is the fact that if you go to developer.github.com, it's better nowadays, but like a year, two years ago, it was nothing but reference material. So, the best way for me to learn how to use GitHub API was ask the developer sitting next to me. And that's what I literally did for a good five years as I was building stuff with GitHub's API.
Brian Douglas:: So, we, it's been a lot of focus on trying to figure out like ask questions and interview some of our customers or just ask our friends and figure out, okay, well, you know, there's this problem with API, this problem with API or I don't know how to do X. And then on the other hand, we'd also get a lot of people like tweet me or just like email or talk to me like in person and be like, hey, I would like to see this feature in GitHub.
Brian Douglas:: So, with getting that sort of response and feedback, we started crafting this like workshop that we were doing at conferences and also at the GitHub's office in San Francisco as well as in New York, we did one in New York as well. And we called them a craft work, which was an opportunity for people to learn how to use GitHub's API. So we take like somebody who's like super simple like user features or super interactions with GitHub API, and sort of show people how easy it is to get like a one click install or interactions with GitHub's API. And we leveraged, we did a couple iterations and we found that like just getting set up to use GitHub API took 45 minutes the first time we did it.
Brian Douglas:: And then not to mention like you had to work about authentication. So like you got to have a GitHub account, which I think nowadays is not that big of an ask. Like a lot of people they're like been tinkering or maybe tried it one time or already using it at work. But then you got take your GitHub account and authenticate it with our API. So then you have to create a token, then you have to know what JWTs are. Like there's all this process, like learning all this stuff that's not interacting with GitHub's feature set and GitHub's API. So what we did was we eventually, and you mentioned Glitch and you work at Glitch, like we eventually got to the point where we were like, let's just remove all this stuff, all this other things we don't want to talk about and just create a Glitch project and remix it.
Brian Douglas:: So the first step that we have now and like this crap work is now this click, the Glitch remix, and then now let's get started with interacting with the API. So here's now the reference material, here's the feature set and no one has to know about like authentication. And like this is the way as developer relations, like we know our limitations. Like I can clone GitHub's repo today, actually I have GitHub's repo on my laptop. I can set up features and then go pitch it to engineering teams and say, hey, I run all this code to fix this problem. It took me six months but could you please merge us in? And then I've got to convince a product manager that this makes sense because I need to give a 45 minute workshop on this.
Brian Douglas:: And like that's challenging, but when I present the, when I did the reverse and like, hey, we had to use Glitch to like make this a little easier and like instead of making 45 minutes to 10 minutes. So, with that feedback, we were able to go back to the engineering team and say, hey, if we're going to use Glitch for this workshop, how do we make this better? So we ended up making it better so now it's like instead of 10 minutes is actually 30 seconds because we've sort of prepackaged all the ammo and all these sort of flags that you need to sort of answer when you first interact with the GitHub's API. We prepared it in a way that we could actually make this like a simplistic interaction.
Brian Douglas:: Netlify saw this change and we're deploying it pretty easily to a point where one of our focuses as it at the time I was an engineer was how do you make that onboarding path? Instead of 10 minutes, make it 60 seconds. Netlify prides itself now today because now it's so easy that you can just click a button and have a site up. And that's the ideas that I brought over to GitHub. Not just myself, but as we had conversations with the team, how do we make this an easier process so we don't get user drop-off and you get user adoption instead? In a nutshell that's how I approach projects is trying to make the user experience better.
Maurice Cherry: I think people at Glitch will definitely be excited to hear that folks at GitHub are using Glitch in that way. That's really dope to hear.
Brian Douglas:: Yeah, it's a great project. Imagine the world we live in today is everything's microwaves. You can get something frozen or you can get caviar to ship it to your house. Imagine if before you wanted to make a meal you had to pick out what knife... Not even what knife you want, what sandstone do you want to use to sharpen your knife because you're going to cut bell peppers. And which knife is going to be the best for bell peppers? And then find out what pot holds enough quarts or liters of water and that's the world we live in as developers. You have to make all these decisions to the point where you're pretty much just done. Either you give up or you power through it and you become an expert.
Brian Douglas:: And I think the world that we're moving into as developers and same thing in design is that we're moving towards simplicity. There's no reason to be "full stack" engineer. You could just be good at what you're good at and then pull in open source projects or pull in companies to do everything you don't want to do.
Maurice Cherry: Makes sense. I gotcha. I definitely want to go more into your career in tech, but I'm curious to know a little bit about you from the beginning. You just briefly alluded to you having this degree in finance. Let's go back. Where did you grow up and was tech a big part of your childhood growing up?
Brian Douglas:: Yeah, I grew up in Florida. Tampa, Florida, specifically outside of Florida if anybody's sitting there and like, "Hey, I'm going to shout my city." I grew up in Palm Harbor, Florida, which is two cities outside of Tampa. Basically suburbs, single-parent households, saw my dad pretty much every other weekend for a while until he got busy. And then I would see him every other weekend in a year. But yeah, both my parents are pretty much in my life. But I bring that up because whenever I went to my dad's house, he had a computer in the house. I do have a twin brother too as well, so we grew up pretty close. And despite me actually working as an engineer in tech, he was way more technical than I was. Growing up we would build computers for saving money and trying to find out how to get the cheapest parts on the internet.
Brian Douglas:: I always grew up tinkering with computers but never thinking that was just going to be a career path. I know my counterparts, my white coworkers who grew up with a computer in the house, they knew they were going to be engineers or computer engineers and whatnot. For whatever reason growing up that was not an option for me. I ended up getting scholarships for college and my college is pretty much 100% paid for. My thought was because I never had money, I'd get a career in finance by taking that sort of a degree path. And I ended up getting a finance degree at the University of South Florida and graduated 2008. I ended up graduating a semester late because my scholarship, it was 100% paid for. It's called Bright Futures. The state lottery sets aside some money for kids who can't afford it to go to college. I think a couple of other states do something very similar and-
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, we do the Hope Scholarship in Georgia. Yeah.
Brian Douglas:: Yeah, that's what I had. You could only take so many credits at a year. Even though I was basically kill it in school and making sure I was working almost full-time the entire time I was at school as well as going to college and living at home. I had to extend my college career one more semester because you couldn't take as many classes in a year. You had a cap on how many classes you could take is what I'm getting at. In that semester I ended up getting a Mac and I took three classes. Golf... I forget what it was called, strategic investments? Because that was the career path I was heading for. And then professional selling.
Brian Douglas:: And out of my entire four years of college, that was my best semester ever because I learned so much in that one semester. One, I learned how to do presentations and stand up in front of people and sell something. And that's literally what I'm doing every day. I know I'm not quoted as a salesperson, I'm convincing people GitHub X or GitHub feature Y is the reason why you should use GitHub.
Maurice Cherry: It's a transferable skill, yeah.
Brian Douglas:: Yeah. My finance degree and also that strategic investment thing in that course, I used that. Though I never actually had a finance job, I've used that information to this day. I'm rich by no means. I'm not even close to being rich, but I've had a 401k and an IRA since I graduated college. I'm pretty proud about that because I know when I hit whatever age that I want to work, I can go ahead and just take a break. I'm pretty happy that I have that in in my life and I got that skillset, but I could not get a job for the life of me.
Brian Douglas:: And that's another thing about college. I'm sure this has come up quite a bit times on this podcast, but as black people, one, I never knew that engineering or computer science was a path for me. Despite that I had a computer in my house pretty much since the internet was a pretty common thing in the nineties and the other thing is networking. The reason you go to college is really for your network. It's not for what you learn. And that's why the bigger schools always have the best candidates.
Brian Douglas:: Microsoft will definitely go to Stanford, but Morehouse, they're probably not at Morehouse. That's not a knock on Microsoft or the knock on HBCUs, but the fact that the network is not there, it's really sad. What I was getting at is when I graduated college with a finance degree, I didn't have a network and what I found out really quickly is that everybody who I went to school with and I interned with, they were all getting jobs based on their dad's golf buddy or their dad's financial planner and all this other stuff. I was like, "Man, my mom doesn't have a financial planner. What am I going to do?"
Brian Douglas:: I ended up just taking a sales job at a tech company. It's a tech wholesaler in Florida called Tech Data, and did basic level sales admin stuff and grew up in the ranks where I got a sales job for the first time with no sales experience. I just had that one course I took and then I read a lot of books and then I got promoted. Within a year, I got promoted twice to IT consultant, which is principal... We have the idea of principal engineer. I was like senior, senior sales. And it was just because I paid attention and I paid attention to networking and I paid attention in what were the trends in, what was happening in the tech world?
Brian Douglas:: I was an avid podcast listener and I watched a lot of tech TV and read a lot of blog posts. I just was informed that I grew myself in into the point where I had a career in sales. But then once I got to that point, I figured out I didn't want to actually do that. And at that time I was expecting my first kid who's now five years old. Actually he'll be six years old in a couple of weeks.
Maurice Cherry: Wow.
Brian Douglas:: Yeah, and because I was expecting a kid, my next step in sales, I had to make a decision. I either had to go to management or I had to go to the field and I didn't want to do field sales because I didn't want to be traveling. I was not really into traveling all the time and being away from home, and I didn't really care about what I was selling, so management wasn't really an option for me. I can't inspire people to sell stuff they don't care about. I can inspire people to buy stuff, but I can't inspire other sales people to do a job that I didn't really care about.
Brian Douglas:: When my son was born, he was born 11 weeks early. Because of that we had to travel back and forth to the hospital cause he was literally in the hospital for 11 weeks. And during that time, my wife and I, because my son was so premature, we were looking for a church to go to. Just some sort of hope and some sort of reason to have some hope about our situation. And I had this idea of building... Because I was Googling churches in Tampa because my son was in right next to Raymond James State, right in the middle of Tampa. And trying to find churches in that area, because I wasn't as familiar downtown Tampa, could not find anything on Google.
Brian Douglas:: And this was like, mind you 2013? Could not Google for the life of me, "Church in Tampa. Tell me what churches are there. What kind of church is it? Are they crazy? Are they normal? What is it?" And could not get that information. So I had an idea of building an app called Chuych, which is C-H-U- Y-C-H.
Maurice Cherry: Nice.
Brian Douglas:: My tagline was, "We put the why in church." Basically, it was Yelp for churches. That's the punchline.
Maurice Cherry: I was just thinking that, it sounds Yelp for churches.
Brian Douglas:: Yeah, I ended up learning how to code to build this app because I just got this inspiration and passion to figure out how to do this thing because I felt this was an idea that could be useful for people who want to find the church or move or... I saw a tweet of someone talking about the Christian Church. And he made a broad statement about church and how bad it is. And each church is different and each church believes in different things. The Bible belt, they believe all this things and then in the West Coast and California the churches are way different.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah.
Brian Douglas:: And I was just trying to figure out as a person who enjoys church and community but doesn't enjoy all the stigma of Christianity. Specifically because that's what I was looking for. I was just trying to find out, "Hey I just want to know if this church is crazy, or this church has a kids program, or this church has music," or whatever. There are sites now and apps that exist in this manner but at the time they didn't exist. Anyway, I learned how to code and decided I wanted to build this little side project app and quit my job eventually. And then as I was planning on a business strategy... Mind you, I actually forgot to mention I was actually getting my MBA at the same time that all this was happening. My goal was finish my MBA, start this little project as a company and quit my job and be happy for the rest of my life.
Brian Douglas:: Turns out doing stuff with church and putting information on the internet is challenging because churches were backwards and sensitive about reviews because I wanted to have reviews as part of the platform. But then I found out that people were getting paid to write code full time and I mentioned I had a computer, I didn't realize computer science was a thing. I went through the entire four years of college not knowing that I could just write code. Because I always thought you had to know how to write code for years to do anything. That's my assumption and that you had to be part genius. And once I discovered I could build an app with writing code and then I discovered that people were making as much as I was making as a sales person writing code as a junior engineer, then I was like, "I'm just going to do this full time. I don't mind tinkering and Googling and being on a computer all day." Then I ended up getting a job out in Orlando. That's the story. Got a job full time and then moved to California for another job.
Maurice Cherry: And you also spent some time at Block, and I'm curious about this because you mentioned the finance degree, you mentioned the MBA, but then you went to Block for an apprenticeship. Why did you choose that over say another longterm education program?
Brian Douglas:: Yeah. I considered it a lot. I was getting my MBA and then as I was getting my MBA... My first semester, we had the write our first dissertation on companies and how companies started. I forget what class it was, but I ended up writing on Google and I wrote on Google because I was reading the book Into the Plex. I read that entire book and found out that Google started from one idea, which was making search better and they took one problem and I think at the time, Social Network, that movie had already been on a couple of years and found that how Facebook was started by this one idea of sharing pictures of people in your college. My thought was like, "Oh, if you just have one way, one thing to make it better, you don't have to go down the corner and go to the mall and get office space and set up shop as a business. If you have a business idea, your brick and mortar store is actually... it could be your house online and the internet."
Brian Douglas:: It shifted my worldview of businesses and as I was getting my MBA. Start a business that doesn't require me actually being in a storefront. And so around that time... Well, we think of boot camps today, they had just got started literally that year and I had just discovered that. And I also was considering going back to community college, learning how to code from there, I ended up doing it part time and because I had a new kid and how traumatic the birth was and everything being 11 weeks early, my wife ended up quitting her job and not going back to work. We ended up being a single-family income with a brand new kid and medical bills.
Maurice Cherry: Wow.
Brian Douglas:: A lot of options just were not available to me. I couldn't quit work. I couldn't go get up and move to Chicago or San Francisco or New York and go learn for six months or 12 weeks or whatever it was at the time. My options were super limited to either just keep learning on my own and then hopefully in two years I'll be skilled enough to go get a job or go start a business or whatever it is or do a program. And at the time boot camps, they were using the term boot camps pretty loosely. Dev boot camp was around, no longer around today, but they had started. And then the other ones were like MOOCs, the massively online open courses.
Brian Douglas:: It wasn't Coursera. Udacity, I think I might've just started. That was an option. But knowing the way I learn, I have to learn hands on, I have to watch YouTube videos, I've got to see it in action and then I'll learn. I'm a avid music player, so I've learned a ton of instruments just watching YouTube videos. Knowing that I could learn how to play drums by watching someone's over the shot camera, over the shoulder camera playing drums. I need to see someone do it and then I could do it. With Block, though they weren't calling themselves a boot camp, they were calling themselves a online mentorship program. The thing that sold me on that was the fact that it was 12 weeks, but the 12 weeks was with you and one other professional that you talked to once a week.
Brian Douglas:: Rather than sit in a classroom and take notes the entire time, just hoping that they'll stop talking so you can write code, instead I was given tasks every week and I would figure out how to do those tasks, write code and then meet with that mentor. Actually I was meeting twice a week actually and I would meet them the next for our next meeting and be like, "Okay, I got that done, what's next?" And he was able to push me and I was able to push him to push me. For me, that was the best way for me to learn is just continue to push, continue to try things out and try stuff that was harder the entire time. I went 12 weeks of learning and I built that church app that I had mentioned.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah.
Brian Douglas:: I built this while I was in the program. I had the idea before I went in the program, I tried building it on my own a month before I joined Block and failed miserably. Could not for the life of me figure out how to run a server and get it deployed to production. I just kept hitting my head against things. Because I had an actual idea and something to do, going into the program was a perfect fit for me. I wouldn't say today that Block and other programs are perfect for everybody. I think you should try things out, you should ask a lot of questions before you actually decide to do things. At the time it was, it was $5,000 and that was $5,000 that I really didn't have, but I figured it out.
Brian Douglas:: My goal was, "I'm going to build this church site and I'm going to know how to code before this is over or else I'm not wasting money." And the summer before everything happened, I tried building an app because I had an Android phone. I had the thought to go ahead and try to learn how to do Java and Android programming and I bought the book and I never read it. And because I already tried once, my goal was basically not try something and then 10 years from now, be like, "Hey, that one time I tried to learn how to code. That was awesome, but I wish I would've tried harder or I wish I would have kept with it," and I didn't want to look back and have this what ifs. My goal was what if I could actually do this and I can actually be successful with the entire time? I didn't really answer your original question. The reason I chose Block out of everything else is because there wasn't a lot of other options, because there were only-
Maurice Cherry: Wow. You did answer the question but to know that it came from all that is... It's funny you mentioned that because a lot of people look down on boot camps for some of the reasons that you mentioned. They're super expensive. There may or may not be this guarantee of work afterwards and things that. But they can be a good I guess accelerator into the industry and that you're learning skills that are being used right now and at least with some of these boot camps, they at least have relationships with companies. There is a greater chance of you getting employed from going through a boot camp as opposed to maybe doing a four... Well, four years versus 12 weeks, but doing a four year course load and then trying to go out there and find a job off the strength of your resume or your network or something. It's a bit of a gamble.
Brian Douglas:: Yeah, and I think it really comes down to how into this are you.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah.
Brian Douglas:: If you are going to sign up for something this and you're going to say, "I'm going to learn how to code?" How much are you willing... I didn't mention but I was basically sleeping three or four hours at night this entire 12 weeks. Because mainly I had a new baby so I needed to be a father for the first time. I wasn't going to try to sideswipe my wife and say, "I don't want to be a dad for at least the first three months of my son's life because I'm going to do this thing." I still had to wake up, and do dad duty, and feed my son, and make sure he was sleeping and my wife had enough rest.
Brian Douglas:: That way when I'm at work she's on full time mom duty. I did that. I was super, super into learning and it's all super, super of getting my life skills and everything else out of the way. But I got really disenfranchised on some of the boot camp students that I was... I did a bit a a stent of a two years of mentoring at Block too as well. And I feel when boot camps first came out, people were super passionate about learning how to code and they were coming from Starbucks baristas, and they were switching careers mid-stream and there they were looking to get something out of this and they didn't mind putting the work. And I think boot camps had to evolve and a lot of them have evolved into what they are today and some of them haven't survived.
Brian Douglas:: I went to community college my first two years of school of college. It was mainly because I didn't really have anything together. I didn't have the STTs together and everything that. I wish in hindsight, I would have actually got that together. But community college is a place for people to sort of find themselves and figure out what they're going to do next in their lives. They take general studies and I feel boot camps have gotten to that point where there's a lot more high school grads or early twenties people joining boot camps as, "I heard you can get a job out of this and I heard this demand for jobs. I'm just going to go, I'm going to get the basic level C of my code base and then hopefully based on half doing everything, I'm going to get something out of this."
Brian Douglas:: And I don't think you can do a boot camp and only half do everything. I think you have to excel and give "110%" to actually get something out of it. Otherwise you might as well go to a four year school because if you do four years, eventually something's going to stick and you're going to have some sort of skill set. But if you're trying to get skills in a short amount of time, you got to put the time into it, you can't just show up and hear the lecture and then go home and go hang out with your friends and go backpack and Tahoe.
Maurice Cherry: I'd be curious about that changing demographic of boot camps because general assembly, which I guess in a way we can sort of call that a boot camp. I feel they've been responsible for a large amount of UX designers coming into the field. Because of them, there are so many UX designers out there and they go through this program and it's very simple. And I'm wondering... Well actually, I'm not wondering, I know this. I know there are people that get into it and they're just half-assing it because they're hoping that on the other side of it, there's going to be a guarantee job for them, whether they pass through it or not, which, you can't go into an educational program with that sort of lackadaisical sort of thing. College I feel is different maybe because it's spread out over more time so you can go to college and completely just fuck off your freshman year and it's fine. Whereas you can't do that the first four weeks of a boot camp, that's ridiculous.
Brian Douglas:: No, you hit it on the head. You've got to put the time into it, you got to put the effort into it. This is super cliche of an example, but I think of individuals like Michael Jordan and how he-
Brian Douglas:: Individuals like Michael Jordan and how he put the time in. He was there before practice, he was there after practice. He was learning how to shoot free throws and if you want to be ... There's a stigma in black culture around playing sports, and the reason why so many black people, sorry this is painting broad strokes, but the reason why so many black athletes are so good at it is because they spend the time. They have a ball in their hand. They're always in the court learning at whatever the drills are and putting the time into it and then they become successful.
Brian Douglas:: But if you want to be the next great Michael Jordan of code or Michael Jordan of design, if you're not doing constant work and constant trying things, and you're not rubbing shoulders against other people that are better than you, then you might as well not even bother. Just take a different career path or whatever.
Maurice Cherry: The Michael Jordan of code. I don't even know what that would look like these days with so many different frameworks and such. That was an interesting comment.
Brian Douglas:: Well I mean, I do have an example and I'd love people to ... I don't know if he's been on this podcast, but Kelsey Hightower. I don't know if you've had a chance to watch any of his talks.
Maurice Cherry: I've seen some of his talks. I was going to say that name sounds mad familiar once you said it.
Brian Douglas:: He's on the Google Cloud platform. He's a developer advocate, too. He's one of my role models that I look up to, and he has a totally different presence on stage than I do. I'm there, I'm telling jokes, I'm teaching you about hip hop. He has no slides whatsoever. He goes up there with a blank terminal screen and his entire talk is live demo. You can't do that without a lot of practice. You have to know what you're talking about; you have to be prepared. If you see an error message that you never saw before because the API changed between the time you got on the plane and the time you started your talk and you never got a chance to know about that, you've gotta be prepared for that.
Brian Douglas:: He's on stage, he's writing code, he's showing off really cool back-end heavy things and then he'll get an error and then he's like, "Oh cool, well, we'll figure this out. Let's debug this live." Then he goes, solves the problem right on stage. With complete composure. I can't do that. I'm not there as a developer, and it's mainly because quite frankly, I haven't put the time in in knowing my code base and knowing the API front to back like he does. I would put him in the ranks of the Michael Jordan, the LeBron James.
Brian Douglas:: I don't think a lot of the people who are coming in and they'll go into the run of the mill, general assembly, it was mentioned before. You've got to put the time, and general assembly has a really good program if you put the time into it. Because general assembly, I've heard, I don't mean to knock it, but I've heard this quote from them, "They're the McDonald's of boot camps because they're in every city."
Maurice Cherry: That's accurate.
Brian Douglas:: McDonald's has a franchise and they have a minimum viable operation standard, you're still going to have a bad experience at McDonald's. And then you just won't go back to McDonald's or you won't go to that one. You know which McDonald's to go to. So I think it's the same thing with boot camps. You've got to ask a lot of questions. You've got to interview the teachers, interview the mentors, and make sure you know where in the industry you're going to land at the end of it.
Maurice Cherry: I'm going to have to reach out to Kelsey now that you mentioned him. I'm going to reach out to him, see if I can get him to come on the show. He's the Michael Jordan or LeBron James of code. I got to talk to him.
Brian Douglas:: I mean, he has a really good story of ... I'll leave it for discovery of the listener as well if you're getting him on here, but he's got some really good stories around his experience. Definitely, I highly recommend him.
Maurice Cherry: What do you think is the single most important skill that a developer needs to possess these days? I'm not necessarily talking about a technical skill, but what do you think developers need to really have these days?
Brian Douglas:: My gut answer, and I knew the answer before you even finished the sentence. Which is, you need to learn how to learn. Hands down, the industry, and web development which is what I focus in, it changes every two years. So two years ago, what we were using today didn't exist, and two years prior to that, it didn't exist. Imagine 10 years ago and everybody's in WordPress. WordPress today is now you have frameworks, you don't even touch PHP anymore. You have to know what the next thing is to be able to interact with it. If you know how to learn then you'll be fine.
Maurice Cherry: I didn't mention this earlier, but I first heard about you of course from podcasting. You used to have this podcast that was called This Developing Story. It seems like This Developing Story has evolved a little bit, but I'm curious, why did you decide to start a podcast back then? For people who are listening to this show who had been listening for years and years and years, God, this may have been what, 2014, 2015 when you were doing This Developing Story I think? I was mentioning it on the show. I was mentioning it on Revision Path.
Brian Douglas:: I'm a Jack of all trades. I'm a serial hobbyist. I try to try new things all the time. As I mentioned earlier in the episode, where I had a Mac in my last semester of college. I had that Mac because I was learning how to make music. The whole bedroom producer thing was a huge craze when I was in college. You get pro tools, you get a mic and then you're a rapper. Though I wasn't really into rapping, I was really into making beats and I wasn't really into that whole music scene. By the time I learned how to code and I had a career as a developer, I already had all these mics, all these keyboards and everything like that, and I was already listening to podcasts, a good 10 years into that, for pretty much the beginning of podcasting.
Brian Douglas:: I had a thought that I'm good at trying things out and then finding out if I can continue to do it, so I was going to try podcasting. At the time that I got my first developer job, I had the idea of doing a podcast called This Developing Story. At the time I discovered This American life as an existent of a podcast. I liked the format, but I wasn't really there as a producer and editor to make it happen like that. But I would do this as document my life, me as a developer, and that's what I started 15 minutes of this is what happened this week, and this is what I learned, type of deal.
Brian Douglas:: Also, around this time, the StartUp podcast too as well. I heard that podcast. So now it's Gimlet Media, which has since been bought by Spotify. I was super into that podcast when it first came out, figuring out the startup and this guy figuring out how to make this work and documenting your life. At the time I was already blogging about two to three times a week, so I did need another medium to share stuff that didn't fit in a blog post that was a little more personal and that would take a little more time to write out. Because there's a lot of editing that happens, and writing is not the best thing I could do. But talking is something I do pretty easily. Hitting record and then shipping that to some server. I could do that easier than I could do sitting writing a blog post.
Brian Douglas:: I did that for a good year while I was living in Orlando. And then it shifted into my experience in San Francisco as a black engineer. I would give a lot of insights on this being the token engineer at the company at the time, including my employer had super problems with diversity at their companies. I would just document that. Documenting the meet-up scene, the conference scene in San Francisco and how different it was as an engineer being in San Francisco. But then I ran out of steam doing that. I got really busy at work. Instead of me just talking about myself every single week, I would talk about myself plus I would bring on somebody and I'd ask them three questions. Which is, who are you, what do you do and how did you get here?
Brian Douglas:: I would just find people that I looked up to in the industry. Honestly, at this time I found your podcast, so I stole the style, but I limited it to something I could pitch real easily. Because at the time I felt like a nobody. Nobody really knew who I was. I would cold email people and cold tweet them and DM them on Twitter and stuff like that. I had a 90% success rate on people saying yes. Because I heard a story of, someone was saying that ... I think it was Dan Benjamin by the 5by5. He was saying that people get the same questions over and over again of, hey, how'd you ... I get the question all the time, "Hey, what was it like doing this or what was it like doing that? Or how did you find the time to have a kid and learn how to code?"
Brian Douglas:: The reason I wrote that in my blog post is so that way, instead of answering that all the time in an email, I'd just be like, here's the link to the blog post. With that same mindset, I know people get the same question over and over again about how'd you become an engineer? If they could put that in a podcast form and record that and be like, "Hey, this is my story, just listen to this," then they would love to do that. I would just reach out to random people and they would say yes, and then I would ask them the three questions. I keep it within 30 minutes, and I did that for 70 something episodes, which was a blast. Some of the networks and the jobs I've gotten since had been literally from this podcast. I grew my network in San Francisco of knowing nobody to now knowing, every time I walk into a room of developers I can guarantee I'll at least know four or five of them.
Brian Douglas:: This is where I started.
Maurice Cherry: It seems this developing story evolved into what you're doing now with JAMstack radio. Is that right?
Brian Douglas:: I move all my stuff to Netlify and then a year of doing the same This Developing Story as well as my blog for a year, they reached out to me directly and said, "Hey, we like what you're doing with the blogging and the podcasting thing. Also all the code you're writing is exactly what we're hiring. So would you like to come work for us?" Literally that was it. I had an interview, but it wasn't really an interview. It was like, "Hey, can you just make this this feature and then we'll see if it's good. We'll kick the tires on it, and then here you go, here's the job."
Brian Douglas:: I've been doing that for, I guess I'm at episode 45, I just recorded yesterday. Been doing that pretty strong, and because my role at Netlify got pretty intense of, I was shipping code as well as I was doing developer advocacy, as well, I was doing a podcast for them. I ended up shutting down ... Well, I never officially shut down This Developing Story because I always wanted to still have it to bring it back. But I haven't published an episode in almost three years now.
Maurice Cherry: The story is still developing.
Brian Douglas:: It is and honestly I've recorded a, "Hey, I'm sorry I haven't recorded a episode, episode." Hey I know it's been a while since this podcast has had an episode, type of deal. But then I always feel disingenuous. I ended up deleting it because I'm like, I'm just going to keep this open ended. Because I never know, maybe I'll leap GitHub, or I want something else so I do my own side project. That platform is something that I'd always want to keep open ended.
Maurice Cherry: Nice. That's funny that ... Well, not funny, but I'll say it's good that you had such a high success rate with reaching out to people. That that was not the case for me.
Brian Douglas:: I guess I got lucky. Maybe because, I don't know, I just had a canned email, and I guess when I go on Twitter I'd reach out to people who were known but not super known. And I think a lot of your guests on the podcast are like this too as well, but I guess I was just, I don't know. Maybe developers just feel like they don't get enough attention, so they would say yes. Not really sure why the success.
Maurice Cherry: I mean, that's not a bad thing. I mean, that's actually really good. I know I would reach out to people, and, "Who are you? What is this? I've never heard of this." I'll be honest with you, my success rate now is even still not that great. It's about 20% maybe. It's not that great. I honestly think part of it is because Gmail is a hater and it keeps sending my messages to spam. That's what I really think it is. If I had to blame something, I think that's what it is.
Maurice Cherry: Because I've emailed so many people from the same email address for six years and it's not another Gmail account or whatever. I think because so many people that I end up messaging have a Gmail account, then Gmail now thinks that this domain is spam or something. I'm guessing that's what it is. I don't really know, but it's not as easy as I would like for it to be most times. Most months I'm still hunting down guests. Like, "You want to come on the show, you want to come talk to me?" That sort of thing.
Brian Douglas:: Well, I'm sure I'll give it a little call out. I don't know. Targeted advertising.
Maurice Cherry: There you go.
Brian Douglas:: But I feel like this show has really filled in a really good niche, because I am by no means a designer. I know this show really started off as being Black designers. I didn't know that there could be a niche of Black anything, at least in tech or anything tangential. When I found there was a list of designers that were Black and I could learn about their stories ... And my story is, honestly, growing up in Florida, HBCU's, the only one I knew of was in FAMU. I would have went there but I ended up getting a school close to home that I didn't have to pay for room and board on.
Brian Douglas:: But I've learned so much about Black culture from this show and black design, and we haven't really touched on more of my day job. But I lead at ERG, at GitHub, we call ourselves The [BlacktheCats 00:59:42] . We recently just had a event where we were specifically targeting Black engineers in college. We targeted the Omega Phi Psi, which is the Black fraternity, and we had in coordination of Morehouse and the other schools and Spellman. Had an event where we taught people how to do open-source as GitHub employees and as a black year ERG at GitHub. I'll find out in a couple of years. I feel like we touch people, we change lives, we change trajectory of CS degree students who thought that they could just get a CS degree from HBCU and be okay at the other end of it.
Brian Douglas:: We exposed them to the world of GitHub and open-source and connecting and networking outside the idea of internships. I really enjoyed that and I really look forward to influencing the culture that I come from even more heavily under, I guess, the umbrella of GitHub. I'm super proud to be a part of that organization and grow that in the future.
Maurice Cherry: Nice. Well, hey, if you ever want to have a somewhat design developer podcast out there, let me know. I'll do it. It's not a problem.
Brian Douglas:: For sure. And actually I didn't even mention too, because you're based in Atlanta too. We hosted this in Atlanta, in Decatur County and we had some politicians too, state representatives come through and they were impressed at how technical the event was. Because they were expecting like, oh, we're just going to get around and talk about ideas, and whoever has the best idea wins the hackathon. But no, we actually had people writing code and contributing the code basis the entire time.
Brian Douglas:: That event, we didn't publicize this because we were targeting specifically to Black community and GitHub is not 100% Black user base. We wanted to make sure the people who were there were the right people. But we called this FLOSS and Code, and the word FLOSS is an acronym for free license, open-source software.
Maurice Cherry: That is so nerdy. I like it, but it's very nerdy.
Brian Douglas:: It is. But I mean, that's the demographic we were going after. Trying to get Black people who want to do open-source.
Maurice Cherry: Nice. Well, just to wrap things up here Brian, where can our audience find out more about you and your work and everything online?
Brian Douglas:: I'm pretty active on Twitter. I'm bdougieYO on Twitter. That's B-D-O-U-G-I-E-Y-O on Twitter. That's usually the central place where you could find the stuff I'm doing. I'm speaking at some conferences in Barcelona at Full Stack Fast coming up pretty soon, as well as here in Oakland at Bay City Ruby. Also, I've got a website, briandouglas.me, that I'm hoping to refresh it hopefully pretty soon. It's been similar to This Developing Story. I stopped writing blog posts on there at the same time just because I got so busy. But I've actually got a blog post I already wrote that I'll be publishing in the next few weeks on there and just revive that. Who knows, maybe that podcast will come back if I find the time.
Maurice Cherry: Nice. Well, Brian Douglas, I want to thank you just so much for coming on the show. I mean, as I mentioned before, I knew about your story I think a little bit, just from listening to the podcast. But really as you talked about growing up in Florida, even the challenges that you were having in terms of your family and then learning code and all of this. I mean, I feel like people really want to know about the story behind the personality or the story behind the developer, because so many times, especially for us being Black people in this industry, these aspirational stories end up being held so much as possibility models in a way.
Maurice Cherry: It's like, "Oh yeah, be like this person." But then you don't really know the story of how they got there and why it's so important to them and things like that. I think it's really great to talk about this and to explore this. And your developer story is still being developed. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.
Brian Douglas:: It was a pleasure. Thank you.